The name Bob Hawk may not be familiar beyond independent circles, but as an early champion of filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Edward Burns, Rob Epstein, and Scott McGehee and David Siegel, he’s been an important guy-behind-the-guy, with good instincts for talent and sage advice for newcomers. The affectionate documentary “Film Hawk” gives Hawk a well-deserved curtain call, but feels like the sort of half-realized project he’d send back for retooling. Though directors JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet have rounded up numerous filmmakers to speak on his behalf, Hawk himself remains an elusive figure, utterly winning but not so readily drawn into the spotlight. After Sundance, other American festivals stand to give the consultant an ovation, but “Film Hawk” won’t travel far beyond the micro-indie circles whence it came.
Garvin and Parquet open the doc with its most affecting scene, as Smith tearfully recalls Hawk’s crucial role in the biggest make-or-break moment in his career. Smith remembers the crushing disappointment of bringing “Clerks” to the Independent Feature Film Market at the Anjelica Film Center, where it played to 12 people — 10 from his camp and “two randies.” One of those randies was Hawk, who considered it the “undiscovered gem of the marketplace,” and brought it to the attention of influential tastemakers like Village Voice critic Amy Taubin, New Directors/New Films chief Larry Kardish and Peter Broderick of Filmmaker magazine. And the rest, as they say, was Sundance history.
Smith credits Hawk as a key benefactor to the entire View Askewniverse, and a host of other filmmakers are very nearly as effusive. When Hawk was still living in San Francisco in the ’70s — the closest thing to a refuge for an openly gay man of artistic inclination — he saw a five-hour cut of Epstein’s “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” and offered pages of handwritten notes that helped whittle the landmark film down to a little over two hours. When Epstein made “The Times of Harvey Milk” in 1984, Hawk correctly predicted that it would win the Oscar for best documentary feature. Hawk would later move closer his East Coast home and continue to consult then-unproven filmmakers like Burns, who was trying to whip “The Brothers McMullen” into shape; McGehee and Siegel, who were working on their debut feature, “Suture”; and, much later, transgender director Kimberly Reed, who was struggling to tell her life’s story with “Prodigal Sons.”
Garvine and Parquet capture a few scenes from Hawk’s life, like his 75th birthday and a get-together with his straight brother, who was not always his biggest supporter. Beyond the talking-heads testimonials — which are shot in a distracting, pointless mix of black-and-white and color — Garvine and Parquet often insert Hawk into awkward staged conversations with some of the filmmakers who have benefitted from his counsel. While Smith and Hawk have a nice rapport together, perhaps due to Smith’s ease with holding court in front of a camera, the other discussions are labored and unnatural, marred further by the variable sound recording that consistently plagues the film.
The biggest problem with “Film Hawk,” however, is that Garvine and Parquet never get close enough to their subject. Late in the film, they ask the consultant to consult on the doc he’s currently in: Do they have the footage they need? Hawk think they have more than enough, but he draws the line at his apartment, which he admits, with some reticence, is only a bed and a dresser, a couple TV trays, and a few cartons of personal belongings. That portion of his life is considered “off limits,” and that scene underlines how little the film comes to understand about Hawk as a human being. His struggles with clinical depression, his financial woes, his current state of uncertainty — all introduced late in the film, all woefully underserved.
If the doc weren’t about him, it’s easy to imagine that Hawk, in his professional capacity, would come back with pages of handwritten notes about it.